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  Symbolism was a European movement from the mid-1890s through to World War I. The Symbolists reacted against the view that the aim of art was to portray the appearance of things. The poet Jean Moréas (in ‘Le Symbolisme’, a manifesto published in Figaro littéraire in 1886) claimed, by contrast, that the goal of art was to find an adequate language to express ideas.

In fine art, the movement was loose-knit, attracting artists of different kinds united only in their distaste for the prevailing belief in science and naturalism. Within this broad-based movement there were two main groups. The confusingly named ‘literary’ symbolists, led by Gustave Moreau (teacher of Matisse) and including Puvis de Chavannes and Odilon Redon, favoured jewel-like paintings of the more fantastic episodes drawn from the Bible and the classics; this tendency led in 1888 to the foundation of the Rosicrucian movement. Historically more significant was ‘pictorial’ symbolism, with its origins in the work of Paul Gauguin. After a visit to Brittany, Gauguin simplified his hitherto impressionist palette into broad areas of pure colour enclosed by a black line. Maurice Denis, the theorist of the movement, commented on this approach, ‘Remember that a painting, before being a warhorse, a nude or an anecdote, is essentially a flat surface covered with colours disposed in a certain pattern’. Such ideas freeing colour and form from the referent of Nature facilitated the development of true abstraction in the 20th century.

In literature, as in art, Symbolism was predominantly French. The Symbolists sought to replace direct description with evocation, to use words less because they stood for specific objects or ideas than because of their ‘musical’ qualities: sound, rhythm and evocative overtones. The chief Symbolists were Huysmans, Laforgue, Maeterlinck (who wrote L\'aprés-midi d\'un faune and Pelléas et Mélisande, two of the quintessential and most lasting Symbolist works because they inspired Debussy), Rimbaud, Verlaine and Villiers de l\'Isle Adam.

Although all theatre uses symbolic elements, critics of drama use the term specifically to refer to works from the end of the 19th century in which a reaction to Naturalism and realism led to an attempt to do justice to the unconscious and the transcendent. Maeterlinck was probably the most notable Symbolist dramatist. Although the Symbolists\' interest in the unconscious points to affinities with expressionism, surrealism and Theatre of the Absurd, their emphasis on the transcendental is a significant point of difference. PD MG TRG KMcL

See also vorticism.Further reading A. Robinson, Symbol to Vortex: Poetry, Painting and Ideas (1885-1914); , J.L. Styan, Modern Drama in Theory and Practice 2: Symbolism, Surrealism and the Absurd.



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